A specail report

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

ABOUT THE STORY

This series is based on court documents, public records, interviews with law enforcement officials, prostitutes and others related to the civic and criminal life of Ken Hardcastle. Times staff writer Anne Hull met with Hardcastle in the fall of 1993, but he declined to be interviewed for this story, as did his wife.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Anne Hull grew up in St. Petersburg. She joined the Times as feature writer in 1985. Her series Metal to Bone won the 1994 Distinguished Writing Award from the American Society of Newspaper Editors. She was named a 1994 Nieman Fellow to study at Harvard University.

The series was edited by Chris Lavin, Sunday Floridian and Discovery editor.

 

Part Two: A Secret Life

A Tampa mother searches for her daughter. Two prominent men are arrested on prostitution charges.

The first thing Victoria Vore noticed about Ken Hardcastle was that he wasn't wearing any shoes. His loafers were on the rug. His briefcase rested on the couch beside him. He was poised and neatly packaged in a beige shirt and khaki slacks.

"Mom, this is Ken,'' said Vore's 19-year-old daughter Melissa.

Hardcastle stood up and extended his hand. He stayed a few minutes before leaving. It was the middle of the afternoon on a weekday.

Vore went into her bedroom to change out of her waitress uniform. She guessed Hardcastle's age to be somewhere in the mid-50s. Something about the briefcase bothered her. He was protective of it. Melissa's voice drifted into the room.

"He has an airplane and he wants to take me flying,'' she said.

The hardest part about having a daughter with a drug problem is the deception. Melissa had become a mirage of shimmering lies.

Vore didn't know that Hardcastle was a prominent citizen from the old brick streets of Tampa. The only thing she knew was that there had to be some dark connection between him and her daughter.

The connection, she suspected, was cocaine.

Melissa had been using crack for a year. Five arrests. Three treatment centers. Lost jobs. Physical wasting. Tears. Regret. Promises followed by lies.

Vore began searching for clues to Melissa's mysterious life.

While Melissa slept, Vore rummaged through her daughter's purse. She found scraps of papers with names and beeper numbers. She found hand-drawn maps. She went through Melissa's telephone book. So many new entries, most of them first names. She found a United Cab business card, with the words scribbled: United Cab holding ring for $5.74 fare. Melissa was using her jewelry to pay cab fares back from the drug holes.

Vore kept a diary of the strangers who dropped her daughter off, recording their license tag numbers. She made notes of Melissa's comings and goings.

Wed. Didn't come home.

Mon. Ken Hardcastle took to do laundry.

Vore was usually at work when Hardcastle stopped by her house, but once, she asked him if he used drugs. He said no.

"What are your interests in my daughter?'' Vore asked.

"Oh, she called me, I didn't call her,'' he said pleasantly.

Melissa told her mother to stop interfering.

"Let go, Mom,'' Melissa would say.

But Vore couldn't.

She looked up the number to Hardcastle Industries in the phone book. She left a message on the answering machine:

"Stay away from my daughter.''

At the Al-Anon meetings she attended, other members told her she was enabling her daughter's addiction by giving her money and shelter.

"Let her hit bottom,'' they told Vore. "She's got to hit bottom.''

"Lock her out of the house,'' a counselor advised.

Vore reluctantly dead-bolted her front door. She put on a pot of coffee. Every siren in the distance taunted her. She held perfectly still, expecting the phone to ring with the news that Melissa was dead.

Melissa's photo looked down from the wall, her cheeks full and her eyes dark as coal. The cat slept in the window. A neighbor's car alarm looped in the distance. The hours trickled by until there was nothing but silence.

Vore decided she needed to do something.

Using the crude maps and scraps of paper she pieced together and stored in the lining of her purse, Vore began her own surveillance operation. After work, she changed out of her waitress uniform, removed all her jewelry and drove her rickety car into some of the most frightening neighborhoods of Tampa.

She eased along streets populated by dealers, look-outs and crack gypsies. She learned who pimped, who dealt, who used and who whored themselves for crack. She figured out which garages and apartments had been converted into makeshift pawn shops, where drug users traded everything from gold teeth to toaster ovens for pieces of crack.

In cold weather, she wore a thick sweater because her old Ford had no heat. Sometimes she brought a neighbor along for safety and company, but mostly she drove alone.

Talliaferro, Warren, Ola, Keyes, Highland, Bryan, Francis, Floribraska: These streets became part of her route. Some were less than a mile from the Tampa Police Department. All were residential streets where people could once sit on their porches in peace. Now they were corridors for the tangled business of drugs and sex.

The street lamps were older in this part of town. Even the light looked different, casting a silver tint over the procession of characters. One spark and half the buildings would go up. Fluorescent orange signs, hammered on doorjambs by the police, floated in the dark with the useless words: WARNING: High Drug Activity Area.

Sometimes Vore parked her car and got out, walking through filthy yards with chained-up Rottweilers, asking if anyone had seen a girl named Melissa.

"Crazy bitch,'' people yelled, laughing at her.

She had the nerve to climb the stairs to the second-floor apartment where a drug dealer lived. Her daughter bought from him. Vore knocked and he answered.

"So help me God, I'm gonna get you,'' she told him, standing there on the landing, shaking with anger. He just shrugged and closed the door.

Vore tried to think back to when her daughter first showed signs that something was wrong. Junior high, probably, when Melissa started skipping classes. She was caught smoking pot. She dropped out of high school after the 10th grade. Plans to earn a GED faded away. Her beauty gave her access to limousine rides and parties.

Vore blamed herself for working so much. If I were born with a silver spoon in my mouth, I could have been home with my daughter, reading to her.

Vore had raised Melissa alone, never bothering to track down Melissa's father for child support. She worked double shifts and brought leftover banquet food home. What Vore could not provide in material gifts, she made up for with the words, "I love you.''

These are the things Vore thought about as she went out searching.

She felt no fear on her drives. She went out at any hour of the day or night; it did not matter. She was cautious and kept the windows rolled up, never venturing down streets without a clear opening in sight. But fear? No. Hearing those sirens when she locked her daughter out of the house was the most excruciating sensation she would ever experience.

As she looked for her daughter, she stumbled onto Ken Hardcastle.

In broad daylight, she would find his car parked outside the same seedy apartments and duplexes that Melissa patronized. Vore was sure her daughter was inside, too.

Anger swarmed inside her. She called Hardcastle's home. A woman answered. Vore blurted out that Hardcastle was involved with drugs and young women. The woman who answered the phone denied knowing anything about it, and hung up.

Vore knew from experience: Every user drops clues. She wondered how Hardcastle covered his tracks.

He gave a command performance.

Wearing black-tie and eating delicate canapes, he appeared at fund-raisers with his wife, who helped raise nearly $2-million for the Tampa Museum of Art, making possible the purchase of the Joseph Veach Noble Antiquities for the museum's permanent collection.

Hardcastle was serving a third term on the Eckerd College board of trustees. His attendance at board functions was spotless. His framed portrait hung reassuringly on the varnished wall at Eckerd.

By 1990, Hardcastle had consolidated most of his business enterprises. Hardcastle Holding Co. oversaw the income from his past businesses and real estate transactions. He moved to a smaller office in south Tampa. A bookkeeper came in occasionally, but Hardcastle basically worked alone, his time completely his own.

He took charge of Hyde Park Presbyterian Church's campaign to acquire a new organ. The Rev. Kenneth Shick bumped into Hardcastle in the church sanctuary one day, and Hardcastle held the pastor captive with a 20-minute explanation about sound wave refractions.

Shick admired Hardcastle's commitment to the church, but he sensed that Hardcastle often tried too hard.

"He was anxious to let you know how erudite he might be,'' Shick said. "It was as if he was covering up for an inner sense of not measuring up.''

Hardcastle attended 11 a.m. Sunday service faithfully, worshiping among the congregation and standing outside on the steps of the church, shaking hands with lifelong friends.

All the while, he was pushing his exploration deeper into a secret world.

His crack use went undetected in part because it was a drug few around him understood. Alcohol was the great crippler of his generation. The noon Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in Hyde Park were populated with graying lawyers and doctors' wives who struggled to come to grips with their addiction.

Cocaine was something their children did.

And smoking crack cocaine, well, that was something other people in other neighborhoods did.

Yet here was this Vanderbilt graduate, squat on a floor of a motel room, burning stones.

As Hardcastle later would explain, the sensation of smoking crack was magnificent and exhilarating, surpassing any adventure he had ever experienced. It made him feel as if he were melting inside.

He found fascinating the chemical properties of cocaine and its effects on the body. It went right to the pleasure trigger. He admired its efficiency, its perfection.

The downside - the immense crash and fatigue and financial cost - he could rationalize away.

If there was a question of being vulnerable to the enormous destructive powers of crack, he didn't linger on it for long.

Crack first appeared on the streets of Tampa in the summer of 1985. A forensic chemist was working in the Tampa crime lab of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement when a few cream-colored chips were submitted for analysis. They had been cut into imperfect cubes by a razor blade. The chemist examined one of the light-weight pebbles. It had the same chemical property of cocaine, yet it could burn.

Others in the lab gathered around. They were seeing the future.

"Crack took off from there exponentially,'' said FDLE chemist John J. Barbara. "Once it hit the street, it was phenomenal.''

What amazed the chemists was that no one had invented it sooner.

Crack is manufactured with the most basic skills in kitchen chemistry. Powder cocaine (cocaine hydrochloride) is dissolved with water, then mixed with baking soda and cooked in a pie tin. The cocaine base turns into a soft mass. As it dries and hardens, the wafer is cut with a razor blade into small pieces.

The crack is sold in small vials or clear baggies, depending on the custom of the local dealers. Once purchased, it is ready to smoke.

A pipe (or "stem'') can be rigged from anything: miniature liquor bottles, beer cans, aluminum foil and even pieces of a car antenna. A filter is required; steel wool or even cigarette ashes will do the job. When heated, the crack vaporizes, and the user inhales.

Of all the possible ways to take cocaine, smoking it provides the quickest route to the brain. Within six to eight seconds, a euphoric rush occurs.

Most users liken the sensation to sexual orgasm, only more powerful. Every pleasure center is ringing. The peak is intense, but lasts only a few minutes. The euphoria is quickly converted to anxiety and irritability. It's like riding an elevator to the top of a skyscraper and then the cable snaps.

The desire to relive the euphoria is consuming. The only way to get the elevator going back up again is to smoke more cocaine. This process is known as "chasing.''

At first, crack can enhance sexual desires, but over time, most users will choose the pipe over a human touch.

Not everyone who smokes crack one time becomes hooked, but studies show the potential for addiction is extremely high. The craving is psychological and physiological. The crack euphoria leaves an indelible impression on the brain. A user who has abstained for several months needs only the slightest cue to trigger a craving.

Because crack is sold in small doses - a $10 rock, a $20 rock, a pack of three $20 rocks - it became stigmatized as a cheap drug. But users can smoke up a $500 paycheck on a Friday night.

Experts in substance abuse often refer to crack addicts as "microwavers'' because their lives self-destruct so rapidly. Compared with the more gradual descents associated with alcohol or other drugs, crack users incinerate at Mach speed.

"The pure insanity of this drug is unique,'' said Cardwell C. Nuckols, a national expert on cocaine. "It's so powerful it can sever the mother/child bond. Culturally, that's a new phenomenon. We've seen nothing like it.''

Crack swept a whole new crop of defendants into the criminal system: people who sold it, used it, committed a crime to pay for it, or assaulted or murdered someone while under its influence.

Courtrooms sagged under the weight of crack-related offenses.

"It's like working on a ship in a hurricane, every day of the year,'' said Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Jack Espinosa Jr.

In this hurricane, Victoria Vore found an unexpected life preserver.

In May 1990, Melissa was arrested for violating probation. A judge ordered her to jail. He also recommended that Melissa be evaluated to determine whether she was a candidate for a coveted spot in a county residential drug treatment program.

Nancy Weaver was the court liaison assigned to Melissa's case.

Weaver had the most penetrating, open blue eyes. Her short-cropped hair on her petite frame gave her a pixielike appearance, but looks were deceiving. Beneath her stocking on her ankle was a tattoo of a red rose, a souvenir from some long-ago blurry night. On a necklace was a gold chip that symbolized her 20 years of sobriety.

She was a warrior.

Weaver arrived at the jail most mornings around 7. She was always calling over her shoulder to some poor deputy who scrambled to keep up. There was an urgency about her that made the rest of the world move in slow motion. Weaver honestly believed there was a war going on. Not the politician's war against drugs, but the more private and wrenching battle that raged inside individuals.

"For some people, normal just doesn't feel good anymore,'' she would say.

Most of the inmates could not afford the expense of a private treatment center. The county was their last hope, and Weaver was their ticket in.

While she was a strong advocate for treatment, Weaver cursed the current culture of victimization. "Yes, you have an addiction,'' she would say, "but it's an addiction you are ultimately responsible for.''

Of the hundreds of inmates Weaver screened each year, an astounding 80 percent considered crack their drug of choice.

There was a bleak solidarity among them, as if they had fallen lower than anyone else. They argued that Weaver couldn't understand the grip of a crack addiction, what it was like to pawn your child's video games or sell your body for a rock.

"Tell me about addiction,'' Weaver would shout, kicking a chair out from under her and leaping to her feet. "I've gone through two marriages, three suicide attempts, and lost custody of my kid. I know what addiction is all about.''

And then her voice would soften. "When you hit bottom, you hit bottom, it doesn't matter how you get there.''

But in private, Weaver had her doubts.

"If there's a key to recovery, it's conscience,'' she said. "And there's something about crack that kills their conscience.''

When Weaver interviewed inmates, she looked for some glint of conscience, a spark that they were sorry and that they wanted to start over. Not a con job, not a denial conversation, but an honest plea for help.

She saw that spark in Melissa.

Weaver recommended that Melissa be placed in a nine-month county rehab program.

"She's a strong candidate for recovery,'' Weaver testified at Melissa's hearing. "I would adopt this girl.''

Vore was at the hearing, sitting toward the front of the courtroom, with her purse in her lap. Weaver introduced herself. They talked for a while, and Weaver gently suggested to Vore that she attend Narc-Anon meetings and learn how to detach from her daughter's chaos. "Detach,'' she added, "with love.''

But Weaver knew it wasn't easy.

"When you're a parent and you haven't seen your kid in four days and you pick up the paper and read that an unidentified white female body has been found on the causeway, you stop breathing,'' Weaver said.

Melissa was granted a fresh chance.

But on the day she was due to report to the drug treatment program, Melissa asked Vore if they could make a stop at a friend's house.

"I just want to say goodbye,'' she told her mother before disappearing inside the run-down duplex.

Vore waited in the car.

After an hour, Melissa yelled from a window, "I'll be out in a minute, Mom.''

Another hour passed.

"Go home. I'll call you when I'm ready,'' Melissa yelled. Her speech was rushed.

Vore was afraid that if she left, her daughter would never make it to treatment. She had no money. The county program was their last hope.

And then a familiar car pulled up to the apartment. It was a Cadillac. Ken Hardcastle got out and walked inside.

Parked on Ola Street, with the June sun beating down on her rusty car, Vore waited for five hours.

When Melissa came out, she opened the passenger door and slid in. She was jumpy, folding and unfolding her hands, her jaws locked in a cocaine clench.

The Big Bang theory in action again. One last send-off before abstinence.

Vore turned the key.

Around the same time Melissa disappeared into the criminal justice system, Jodi Bennett emerged.

After serving seven months for resisting arrest with violence, she was released from Florida Correctional Institution at Lowell, about 120 miles north of Tampa.

Hardcastle picked her up from prison.

Their past was woven together in a way that seemed to keep them connected. Jodi was only 14 when the police found her with Hardcastle in a room at the Ramada Inn in 1986. Now she was 18 and a veteran prostitute.

On the way back to Tampa, Hardcastle stopped to buy Jodi a pint of peach Schnapps and orange juice. They drove her to the apartment of 21-year-old Gina Welch.

Gina was into everything: dealing drugs, robbing tricks, fencing stolen property. She was compact and muscular, with olive skin. One boyfriend called her "my little Madonna.''

Gina had recently befriended a shy, blond 15-year-old runaway named Jayna. Jayna was new to prostitution.

She folded into the collage of girls in Hardcastle's odyssey.

Hardcastle was smitten.

He wasn't the only one.

Months later, in February 1991, Jayna was picked up for prostitution and placed in a runaway shelter. A community service officer with the Sheriff's Office overheard an incredible piece of information.

One of the kids in the shelter mentioned that a customer of Jayna's was "that old guy on Channel 13.''

Hugh Smith was the most trusted and popular TV anchor in Tampa Bay. For two decades, he dominated the evening news. But Smith was no stranger to prostitutes. In 1982, the newscaster pleaded guilty to soliciting sex from an undercover officer. He gave an on-air apology for his mistake. "It won't be repeated,'' he told his audience.

But as the years passed, Smith used prostitutes again. He "dated'' Gina Welch. He would reach her on her pager, and they usually met at the Eckerd Drugs on Henderson Boulevard, less than a mile from Channel 13.

In 1990, Gina introduced the 56-year-old Smith to Jayna. She was 15. Smith paid to have sex with her several times at his house in south Tampa.

In February 1991, after a brief investigation, Smith was arrested. He pleaded guilty to procuring a person under 16 for prostitution. The scandal with Jayna ended his 27-year TV career.

It also cast a spotlight on another high-profile man in town.

A Tampa police detective had a hunch that Ken Hardcastle might also have been one of Jayna's customers.

It was nothing more than a hunch. Somewhere in the detective's mental Rolodex, Hardcastle's name popped up as someone who had an affection for juvenile prostitutes.

Detective Harold Casey drove to the runaway shelter where Jayna was staying. When he arrived, Casey was struck by her appearance. She had blond hair and deep-set chocolate eyes. Her cheekbones were just beginning to emerge from a girlish ambiguity. She looked like a child.

Outside the shelter, they sat and talked in Casey's unmarked car.

Casey showed Jayna a photo of Hardcastle.

"Yes, that's Ken,'' she said.

Casey listened to her story. Jayna ran away from home in Brandon and began living on the streets of Tampa. She met Gina Welch, who introduced her to Smith and, later, Hardcastle.

Hardcastle would pick up Jayna and drive her to a motel. She couldn't remember the names of the motels. She waited in his Cadillac while he registered. He performed oral sex on her. They were together only five or six times in four months.

Jayna began smoking crack. Homeless and strung out, she was picked up by the police for offering to commit prostitution.

She was placed in a foster home in Brandon and enrolled in a nearby junior high school. Here was this teenage prostitute who worked Nebraska Avenue, sitting in a classroom with kids who watched Beverly Hills 90210 and tried out for cheerleading. She lasted only a few months at school, and returned to the streets.

That's when she was arrested, in February 1991, and the dominoes began to fall: The Hugh Smith investigation began, which led to the Hardcastle investigation.

Detective Casey had been with the department for 10 years. His days were dotted with hustlers, pedophiles and prostitutes. He realized that most people, even other police officers, thought the juveniles who worked on the streets weren't worth saving.

"That's a street hooker,'' a friend told Casey. "Why do you bother with these cases?''

Because they are children, Casey answered.

Casey knew Jodi Bennett. He knew many of the girls who worked Kennedy, Hillsborough, Florida and Nebraska. He always wondered how they ended up on the streets. What made them run from their homes? What could they have endured? Something so unspeakable they fled.

Casey thought he could help Jayna.

"There's not a lot of satisfaction in this job, but I felt like I could turn this kid around,'' Casey said.

But first, he would use Jayna to help him arrest Hardcastle.

Jayna was taken to the police station. A counselor from the runaway shelter came with her. Casey wanted Jayna to call Hardcastle at his office. He briefly coached her on what she should say. The tape recorder was switched on.

Hardcastle answered the phone at his office. He made a date to meet Jayna in a few days in front of Rene's, a gay bar on Kennedy. The conversation was friendly, brief and uneventful.

Three days later, Jayna was brought back to the police station to make another phone call to Hardcastle. This time, his tone was different.

Hardcastle: How old are you?

Jayna: 16.

Hardcastle: Tell you what. Give me a call on your 18th birthday.

Jayna: What's wrong?

Hardcastle: Aah, just give me a call on your 18th birthday, do you hear that?

Casey believed that Hardcastle had somehow learned he was a suspect, or that he had figured out Jayna was the girl in the highly publicized Hugh Smith case.

Based on Jayna's sworn statements, the police thought they still had a case against Hardcastle.

"Let's knock him down,'' Casey said.

Casey and a partner drove to Hardcastle's home to arrest him. All was quiet. Hardcastle's car was parked in the long driveway, but no one answered the front door. The detective walked over to Hardcastle's car and felt the hood. It was warm.

The next day, having learned he would be arrested, Hardcastle surrendered at the Tampa Police Department. He was accompanied by his lawyer, Vivian Maye. He wore a starched white button-down shirt and khaki trousers. He kept his reading glasses folded in his shirt pocket.

He was charged with lewd and lascivious behavior on a child and with procuring a person under 16 for prostitution. He declined to make any statements to the police.

In small talk, Casey found Hardcastle interesting and likable. The detective thought he seemed genuinely embarrassed.

But that changed.

As Hardcastle was handcuffed and led outside the police station, he walked into an ambush. News reporters and photographers were waiting for him.

Hardcastle was indignant.

"I'm completely innocent,'' he said. "It's a made-up fabrication.''

When asked if he knew the teenager, he replied: "I know of her, and that's all - very casually, a long time ago.''

Hardcastle was placed in the back seat of a detective's car. He was driven to jail.

Two hours later, his attorney posted $5,000 bond and he was released.

For some in south Tampa, Hardcastle's arrest brought a mixture of astonishment and anger. For Mia Hardcastle, there was only sympathy.

"My heart went out to Mia, not him,'' said Colleen Bevis, who knew Mia through the Junior League and other charity organizations. "I thought, "My Lord, how could he do this? In front of all her friends?' ''

It had been a difficult year. Mia's mother and only living parent, Billie Canariis, a charity matriarch, died at the age of 86.

The Hardcastles' oldest son, Kendrick IV, was arrested outside a Tampa bottle club near dawn one morning. A sheriff's deputy found a gram of cocaine and some marijuana in the car.

And then came the humiliating arrest of her husband. His 58th birthday was six days away.

Hardcastle resigned from the board of trustees at Eckerd College. Over the phone, he told President Peter Armacost he wanted to spare the school any embarrassment.

When Armacost listened to Hardcastle, "there was still some denial on his part.''

On a crisp morning in November 1991, a woman in a tie-dyed T-shirt stood on the sidewalk along Nebraska Avenue. It was just after 8 a.m. Most drivers probably didn't notice her. A car pulled up. She got in.

She told the man her apartment was nearby. It was a run-down stucco building near an interstate exit ramp off Floribraska. When they pulled up, she named her price:

Forty dollars to "f--.''

That's when the driver showed his police badge.

Victoria Vore got the call from jail.

Melissa had been arrested for offering to commit prostitution.

Only eight months earlier, she had emerged from the county residential drug treatment program with great promise. "I saw her become humble, teachable, loving,'' said Nancy Weaver, the court liaison who helped get Melissa into the program. "She was beyond druggy-slutty-tight-pants beautiful. She had joined the middle class.''

And then Melissa used again, and it started all over, leading her to the corner of Nebraska and Robles on the chilly November morning.

From jail, Melissa swore to her mother that the prostitution charge was entrapment. "He kept chasing me around the block until I had to get in,'' she said.

Vore believed Melissa's story. She could not accept the fact that her daughter would engage in such a vile act. She wrapped herself in the idea that the police had wrongfully arrested Melissa.

From jail, Melissa wrote a letter and mailed it to Hardcastle Industries.

Ken,

Hi. Thanks for helping me out. You are always there when I need you. Thank you so much. I wouldn't have been able to get anything I needed if you weren't there to help me. Thanks! Well, I guess I have to learn how to talk nasty on the phone for you. It's kind of strange but I'll get used to it. It makes me horny just thinking about you and your tongue.

Well, how about you? How are you doing? I hope everything is okay. Don't go by (V---'s) to get anything they are watching that's what a girl said. (V---) wasn't home but they picked her up from there. So tell him to be careful.

In court, Melissa pleaded guilty to the prostitution charge and was sentenced to 30 days in jail. Because she violated her probation, she also was found guilty on old cocaine charges. A judge ordered her into the overcrowded county drug program. Until a space became available, she would have to remain in jail.

She waited more than 100 days.

Nancy Weaver, the court liaison, ran into Victoria Vore at jail.

"Is this going to be it?'' Vore asked. "Is jail the bottom?''

Weaver held her blue eyes steady. "I can't tell you that.''

Vore drove to the police station downtown, her lists in hand. For months, she had kept them hidden in the lining of her purse. In her careful handwriting, it was all there: names, addresses, tag numbers and dates. She was giving everything to the police.

But as she stood there in the waxed lobby of the police station, under the hard glare, she was politely dismissed. An officer told her the police did their own investigations. We appreciate your concern, he said, impatiently turning to go.

She phoned a vice detective. "We don't need your list,'' he told her. His tone made her feel foolish.

Vore took her list to the county courthouse downtown and dropped it off in the office of Chief Judge Dennis Alvarez.

Hardcastle's name was on her list. "Prominent businessman,'' is how she described him.

Alvarez' secretary later called Vore and assured her the list would be passed on to the chief of police.

And then an opportunity arose.

Vore was hired to help cater a Thanksgiving dinner for Mayor Sandy Freedman's family in south Tampa. Vore knew the mayor had ordered the bulldozing of crack houses as part of her campaign against drugs. Vore had seen the photos in the newspaper of Freedman standing next to the piles of rubble. She admired her.

In the days before Thanksgiving, Vore rehearsed her lines.

You have to do something about these places. Give me some hand grenades.

My daughter's small-time, but she's involved in drugs. Help me.

On Thanksgiving, as Vore poured the water and set the plates out and later cleared the dessert away, her moment vanished. She could never find time alone with the mayor.

Her thoughts traveled to her daughter, Melissa.

As she stood at the sink, untying her apron, she felt completely hopeless. She gathered her things and took the elevator down.

Jodi Bennett looked like a jackal on the sidewalk. Her hip bones poked forward and her hair was yellow and shaggy. She was smoking crack daily. None of her dates could tell she was seven months pregnant.

On a muggy afternoon, Jodi went into labor in front of the Krystal hamburger stand on Busch Boulevard. An ambulance took her to Tampa General, where she gave birth to a 3-pound baby girl. Her head was the size of a tennis ball. Jodi named the baby Heaven Lee. She felt the disapproving glances from the nurses. She knew what they were thinking: Look what you did.

Several hours after the delivery, she asked for her clothes and walked out of the hospital.

Two days later, she asked a trick to drive her to Tampa General before they had sex. At the hospital, the man stood behind the glass window of the nursery while Jodi looked at the baby in the incubator. She began to cry.

"If you want to wait, you can feed her,'' a nurse said gently.

Jodi turned away. "I'll be back.''

In the car, she was silent. The date drove her to the motel. He pushed $50 into her hand. Take care, he said.

She walked to Riverview Terrace public housing project. She scored a $50 pack of crack. She knocked on the door of a friend's apartment. Fingering the pipe in her pocket, she slipped inside.

Jodi's relatives in east Hillsborough County took custody of Heaven Lee. "That baby has the shakes,'' Jodi's aunt remarked.

Jodi's family now was raising both her children.

Jodi drifted back to the streets.

When she was lucid, she shoplifted romance novels from the grocery store. She read on bus benches while she waited for tricks.

It was getting harder to make money by prostitution alone. Prices were being driven down because of crack and the number of new girls it brought to the street.

Robbing her dates supplemented the losses. Jodi was smooth, the way she lay across the passenger seat of a car, her head in a man's lap. He didn't even notice the wallet being lifted out.

"We been ripped off, we been raped, we been beat up on dates,'' she would later say. "Used to be I made an honest living prostituting. I got ripped off so many times, I was like, "It's time for me to get me.' ''

But by the end of 1991, she had moved beyond simple retribution.

One night, Jodi and a date were in a room at the El Rancho Motel on Nebraska Avenue. As arranged, Jodi left the door unlocked. Her boyfriend burst in. They took the man's car, wallet and clothes. They left him naked and cursing.

In a few hours, they ran up hundreds of dollars of charges on his Discover card. The cops followed their sloppy trail. Two days later, they were arrested.

At the state attorney's office, a prosecutor learned that the infamous Jodi Bennett was in jail. The prosecutor sent an internal memo.

I've been looking for her for several months. Please don't let her go until I know if I can use her.

The state wanted to question Jodi about her relationship with Hardcastle, hoping she might be another witness, besides Jayna, who could testify that Hardcastle paid for sex with girls under 16.

The prosecutor met with Jodi. An agreement was struck. Jodi would plead guilty to the El Rancho Motel charges and receive probation, under one condition.

She would have to provide "truthful testimony and cooperate fully in State vs. Kendrick Hardcastle.''

Hardcastle's day in court moved near.

His attorney wanted to interview Jayna, who was at the heart of the allegations against Hardcastle.

It was no longer possible to describe her as a child.

Jayna was now 17. She had grown nearly 2 inches taller. Her hair was ash brown, its natural color. Her face had lost its childish appearance, although her cheeks were still dusted with freckles. She was pregnant and living in a foster home. She had left the streets for good.

After Jayna was sworn in, Vivian Maye, Hardcastle's attorney, began asking her questions.

Jayna repeated what she had told Detective Casey the day he came out to interview her for the first time: that Hardcastle would pick her up from Gina Welch's house and drive her to a hotel. She waited in the car while he registered. Afterward, he would lie on the bed beside her. He usually gave her $80 and drove her home.

Maye asked Jayna what she did with the money. Jayna said she gave it to Gina.

"When I came in,'' she said, "I always gave it to her because what does a 15-year-old little girl want with $100, $80, laying around in her hand or in her pocket?''

Maye seized on Jayna's description of herself.

"You considered yourself a little girl?'' she asked.

"What are most little girls?'' Jayna replied. "Basically little girls. They're just learning to grow up.''

"You had been having sex since what age?'' Maye asked.

"Probably about 12.''

Maye asked if Jayna considered Gina her pimp.

No, Jayna answered.

"If it hadn't been for her,'' she said, "I probably wouldn't be sitting here right now. I'd probably be dead in some ditch.''

"Would you consider her a friend?'' Maye asked.

"I wouldn't consider anybody that I've known off the streets a friend,'' Jayna answered.

Maye was determined to prove that once again, her client was the victim of a scam. The people he'd tried to help on the street repaid his generosity with damaging lies.

The fact that a man of Hardcastle's age and social prominence would befriend runaway juvenile prostitutes might have seemed unusual on the surface, but Hardcastle defied easy categorization.

Maye was convinced that Hardcastle had done nothing illegal or improper with the girls.

"In all of our brilliant people throughout history,'' Maye would later tell a reporter, "there's always been a touch of, I don't want to use the word madness, but there's always in truly intelligent people, there's always been something that the normal person cannot understand. I think you have that situation with Ken.

"He's so brilliant that the brilliance might take him into areas most other people wouldn't go into.''

THE CHARACTERS

KEN HARDCASTLE

For years, he juggled two lives.

JODI BENNETT

After running away from home, she became a prostitute at 13. She grew up in Tampa's seedy motels.

THE DRUG

Crack was the common bond between all of the characters.

VICTORIA VORE

The mother who waged a campaign to find her daughter and to turn in drug dealers.

MELISSA

Victoria Vore's daughter who bounced from home to the streets and into Ken Hardcastle's odyssey.

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